On her fourth studio album The Element Of Freedom, Alicia Keys seems to have taken hold of her superstar status and channeled it directly into her music, turning in a set of arena anthems that find her immediately recognisable diva vocal presence and tender piano playing shining like twin beacons through a barrage of huge drum production, cold, otherworldly synth arrangements and thick big-room reverb. In an R ‘n’ B world that’s gone Auto-tune crazy, Keys proves that she’s something genuine among so many mass-produced plastic knick-knacks.
In discussing The Element Of Freedom, 12-time Grammy winner Keys describes her approach, saying: “The music is really strong, and the drums are really aggressive, but my voice is vulnerable and delicate.” This approach comes through brilliantly in the mix, permeating the entire album with Keys’ dichotomous vision and elevating each track to the big stage it deserves.
The barrage is a perfect counterpoint to Keys’ voice, and the sentiment she’s trying to convey. On the swaying How Strong My Love Is, Keys sums it up nicely, singing, “Through the shake of an earthquake, I will never fall. That’s how strong my love is.” Indeed the album, at its most lavish, comes across as a lovely and�chaotic earthquake.
On the near biblical intro, Keys lays out her ideas for just what that indefinable element of freedom is: “And the day came when the risk it took to remain tightly closed in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to bloom.” And throughout the album’s remaining 13 tracks, the experience is not unlike watching a flower bloom in time-lapse; this one’s about Keys stepping away from safety, and the whole thing benefits beautifully from her sense of daring.
Love Is Blind builds slowly as a space-funk slow jam that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Kanye West‘s 808s And Heartbreak with its cold beats and shuttle-side polish. Here, Keys wails, “All of my friends think I’m crazy, but I don’t care,” and you believe her.
The anthemic single Doesn’t Mean Anything builds from subtle, fragile piano over a U2 stadium beat. Keys sings, “All at once, I had it all, but it doesn’t mean anything now that you’re gone,” and while this may be the feminine empowerment heir apparent to Beyonc�‘s Single Ladies, the whole thing comes off as so heartfelt and genuine, you can forgive it its radio-readiness, opting instead to lock arms and sway along.
The surprising Love Is My Disease opens, sounding a bit like a tossed-off Michael Bolton single’s synth wash with Keys allowing her voice to come across gruff and smoky for a change, before shifting gears into a sort of proto-reggae stomp on which Keys confesses, “I try to act mature, but I’m a baby when you leave.” Again, Keys’ dichotomy is at the forefront: despite pleading, begging lyrics which seem to place the power in the hands of whatever knuckleheaded man has left her alone, the big instrumentation – most notably that powerhouse rhythm section, which is present throughout like a marching band drum-line – serves as a reminder that Keys is in control of her own destiny.
Other standout moments include the fever-dream Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart, and the Sasha Fierce brashness of Put It In A Love Song, a duet on which the always fantastic Beyonc� takes a notable backseat to Keys for a delightful and surprising change of pace. The album closes with the slow-jamming sequel to the Jay-Z hometown duet Empire State Of Mind. This time Keys does it her way relying mostly on piano and subtlety, and when the track eventually builds to its peak, the energy is infectious.
The Element Of Freedom is a snapshot into the heart and mind of Keys, one of the biggest names in R ‘n’ B today. But instead of letting fame weigh her down or change her game, she’s instead channeled all her superstardom, all her awards, all her philanthropic efforts, and found a way to set them to music. This late arrival is set to be remembered among the best pop albums of 2009.